It’s bewildering to consider what a venerated professional theatre complex such as the Geffen Playhouse was thinking when it decided to take on Marcus Hummon and Adrian Pasdar’s new musical Atlanta. It’s admirable that the Geffen, as professed in the program by producing director Gil Cates, continues to “look at plays that examine the American experience.” Yup, great idea. But the Geffen management’s mistake was to think it good idea to include this particular “new American musical about the Civil War.” But then, we all know what kind of intentions paved that poor ol’ proverbial road.
Not often can a musical, with the obvious exception of Les Miserables, succeed through the rockets’ red glare of combat unless it takes place a bit away from the fray. Atlanta even carries on right on the battleground, its hapless troupe of improbable yet glaringly stereotypical characters marching across war-torn Georgia with truly misguided spirit, emerging through the smoke and crawling over the strewn bodies while singing uplifting songs and performing Shakespeare for their nutcase of a commander between skirmishes.
There are a couple of nice ballads in Hummon’s score immediately reminiscent of Big River, knee-slappin’ country tunes right out of the Ozark Opryland, a creepy number about catching and eating various breeds of hapless canine for the company’s evening meal that recalls Mrs. Lovett and Sweeney comparing recipes (few songs here don’t recall others already proven successful), and even a few stone cold serious ditties set to the poetry of the Bard himself. Some are beautiful, some are forgettable, almost all are bizarrely inappropriate and a dreadful fit when performed together as a song cycle.
To say nothing about Atlanta in any way works would be a terrible understatement. The game veteran cast tries valiantly, but even for LA stalwart John Fleck, no one could possibly emerge from this mishmash unscathed. Fleck crashes his blustering Foghorn Leghorn-voiced Colonel Medraut into all the traps that Hummon and Pasdar created for him, courageously attempting to make something interesting of the guy and maybe even find a thread of pathos for the poor bewildered audience to feel sympathetic toward, but even a genius like Fleck doesn’t stand a chance here.
This steadfast ensemble of performers, particularly Ken Barnett and Merle Dandridge, are all standouts vocally and in performance throughout Atlanta’s various “battles” real and invented; all involved deserve much better material to explore. Except for some occasional flatting in his solo numbers, Leonard Roberts is to be commended for somehow managing to keep a straight face throughout as Hamlet, the Colonel’s family slave and genetic secret who now leads his pack of Shakespearean campfollowers. When actors are asked to include modern urban slang in conversation—such as adding the term “Fool” at the end of a sentence as a term of admonishment in 1864—how far can anyone be expected to create a real character?
The best part about Atlanta is the band led by musical director Kevin Toney, seemingly impervious to the disaster unfolding before them. Luckily for the audience, they are seen onstage and offer something to look at besides moving videos of Civil War battlefields projected on three panels at the rear of John Arnone’s untypically uninspired set. Daniel Ionazzi’s lighting design and Brian Hsieh’s fine sound elevate the production gallantly, but nothing and no one can survive past a silly plot, an ill-conceived score, and the plodding direction of Pasdar and the Geffen’s artistic director Randall Arney, who here makes his first puzzling misstep in an otherwise impressive tenure at the Geffen.
Atlanta plays through Jan. 6 at the Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave. in Westwood CA; for tickets, call (310) 208-5454.